Make way for ducklings! Thousands arrive in Currituck County

By on May 21, 2018

These ducklings are among 260 mallards delivered to Piney Island Hunt Club. (Dee Langston)

About 2,300 ducks arrived in Currituck this past week, but their landing wasn’t because of some weird off-season migration.

These six-to-eight-week-old mallard ducklings came to the Sportsman’s Paradise by way of a tractor-trailer from Georgetown, South Carolina.

Each year, the Currituck Game Commission purchases the ducks — this year’s oversized flock cost about $15,000 — and distributes them to resdients and hunt clubs willing to feed and manage them for four to six weeks until they reach maturity, said chairman Jeremy Evans.

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For the most part, the game commission pays for the ducks with revenue generated from duck blind application fees, which are $35 for Currituck residents and $250 for non-residents, Evans said.

“We do it to put birds back into the community,” Evans said. The South Carolina ducks serve as a draw for migratory ducks, which are inclined to come and stay at a place that’s already populated with waterfowl.

“Ducks are attracted to ducks,” Evans said. “It attracts them and keeps them in the county.”

Although it’s easy to imagine that the ducklings are brought in to replace those that hunters take out, that’s not the whole story. The wild duck population has declined in recent years, which threatens the way of life of many Currituck residents, especially commercial fishermen, who work as hunting guides during the winter, when fishing and crabbing isn’t sustainable, Evans said.

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Waterfowl hunting has long been a part of Currituck’s heritage, and the popularity of the sport hasn’t waned.

“Currituck County is still one of the most sought-after destinations for waterfowl hunting,” Evans said. An abundance of waterfowl and game has helped maintain Currituck’s reputation as a “Sportsman’s Paradise.”

The “Duck Dynasty” reality show, along with its spin-offs, such as “Commander Life,” have helped advance the popularity of the sport. People who watch the show are often attracted to the duck-hunting lifestyle (and the duck calls), Evans said.

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Although there are far fewer hunt clubs in Currituck than there were decades ago, the ones that have survived and thrived provide employment to cooks, caretakers and guides, and the sport keeps local outdoor outfitters in business.

Jeremy Evans (left), the chairman of the Currituck Game Commission, and Will McSpadden were on hand when about 260 ducklings arrived. (Dee Langston)

Several factors have played a role in Currituck’s declining duck population, including the lack of submerged aquatic vegetation, a major source of food for waterfowl, Evans said.

Will McSpadden, caretaker of Piney Island Hunt Club, said that changes in the Atlantic Flyway have also played a role in the reduction of the county’s waterfowl population.

Those changes have been brought about in part by changes in agriculture, McSpadden said. In the past, vegetables and other produce was grown along the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, and waterfowl had to fly farther south to find food during the winter.

However, once California and other western states took over the major market share of growing fruits and vegetables, farmers along the East Coast turned to growing grain — which created an easy food source for migratory birds.

“The ducks didn’t have to come so far south to get something to eat,” McSpadden said.

The wild ducks that do arrive and stay to raise a family have multiple challenges to their survival, including birds, fish, turtles, raccoons, foxes and minks, along with other predators.

“The survival rate for newborn baby ducks is almost nil,” McFadden said.

In addition to his responsibilities at the hunt club, McFadden builds nest boxes for wild geese and ducks, along with platforms for osprey nests. He also plants crops that provide a food source to migratory birds. “We try to create a habitat for them,” he said.

About 260 of the baby ducks brought to Currituck were delivered to Piney Island Hunt Club near Coinjock, where feeding and caring for them will become part of McSpadden’s full-time job.

Hunt clubs and individuals who agree to raise the ducklings must meet certain requirements, including a secure pen and access to water, like this setup at Piney Island. (Dee Langston)

The hunt club has set up a pen for the ducklings, which includes plenty of grass and other vegetation for the ducklings to eat, along with access to the Intracoastal Waterway. The top of the pen is covered with netting to keep hawks out. In the water, the bottom and sides of the duckling’s habitat is made of submerged boards, which keeps out turtles and other predators.

The ducks eat an average of 1,500 pounds of feed every few days. The cost of food, along with providing shelter, grass, safety from predators and access to water, is the responsibility of the hunt clubs or individuals who agree to raise the birds.

Once the ducks are old enough to fly away, McSpadden and a helper band them, load them in McSpadden’s pickup, and distribute them at large ponds along the Currituck Sound and the Intracoastal Waterway. The banding numbers and other information are sent to a biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.

Most individuals participating in the baby duck program take between 50-100 ducks, but large hunt clubs may get significantly more. For example, Dews Island Hunt Club receives upwards of 500 ducklings, while Narrows Island Hunt Club will get around 250 to 500 ducks, Evans said.

McSpadden doesn’t seem too concerned about the fate of the ducklings he helps raise.

“Some of them will get shot, but these birds are so smart, they won’t go where the hunters are,” he said.

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